Recently I was trying to tell a friend about two historical mystery series I just discovered. I’ve mentioned them here before, and no, I have no intention of naming them because they’re both bestsellers and I don’t need that kind of grief. (Those of you who correspond with me regularly can ask for the series’ names and I’ll name them, privately.)
One of them is set in the early twentieth century, the other just before the Regency. As I said, I’ve been reading them both at once, alternating between. Neither of them are my normal fare. One I’m reading because I have a craving for that time period. The other I’m reading because it came up in a list of “war fiction” which is something I’ll need for the book after A Few Good Men (for those who got advanced reading rights for that, this is the book from Zen’s perspective.) I mean, I’ll need the mood. Of course the book – work titled Revolution – is space opera or at least science fiction (can you still call it space opera when no one leaves the Earth. Oh, wait. Zen comes from Eden, so I guess so.)
Anyway, while I’m reading both, the proto-regency one leaves a much deeper impression. Also, if I’m in an impatient mood (look, I have kids and cats) I can’t stand to read the twentieth century one.
I was recommending both to my friend, but trying to explain to him the … texture difference between the two. I said a lot of “I don’t know” and things like “one just feels more real, somehow, while the other I think if I read five back to back would start to annoy me.” Among other things, the one set in the regency has real and painstaking research that I have not found flaw in (and let me tell you…) while the other seems the result of having read a book called “daily life in–” and a lot of fiction set in that time.
And then I walked away from the email exchange, thought about it and realized what it was.
The regency plays it straight, in the sense that the author did research to the best of her ability and is trying her utmost to convey life in that time, with perhaps very minor adjustments to prevent the modern reader from running screaming into the night. The 20th century one is full of … condescension towards the unenlightened people in the first half of the century. The main character is completely out of her time, having all sorts of late 20th early 21st attitudes, even if she does periodically have “qualms” about them. And the people who don’t have those attitudes are shown as somehow blinkered.
Mind you, it’s not in your face and obvious, but you get the feeling that the whole time the writer was smirking at the times behind her back.
Look, Agatha Christie had a ton of odd opinions on governance and on “the right people” but at least they are her opinions – by which I mean you get the feeling that was simply how she saw the world. (And they didn’t bother me, save in the thrillers where… never mind.) There is a sense of sincerity, of her telling them as she sees them.
In this other series – and they’re by no means alone. In fact, it’s one of my pet peeves with historical books – you get the feeling the author feels smarter than her material, if that makes any sense. The author thinks that those people are curiously benighted, but she must play as if their little concerns were real.
Somehow this attitude taints the book, because the psychology of the characters seems off, and because after a while, the reader gets the feeling that the writer is smirking AT him.
You see, to respect the intelligence of the reader you have to respect the intelligence of the characters. Some things seem unfathomable to us today like, say, for me, the prohibition. BUT I can think about it and read bios of prohibitionists, and sort of “get” it. I wouldn’t attempt to write one unless I did. (No, right now I have no plans to write one. It’s just an example.) It’s like when I write something set in Tudor England. I am not a monarchist (though, full disclosure, my first 10 or so votes were straight party monarchist, in Portugal – mostly because I was going with “first do no evil.” Also, because it upset my parents. I was young, okay?) but I can get into the mind set of someone for whom mind-and-sovereign are inextricably linked. I wouldn’t write them otherwise.
Once I identified that feeling of being smirked at, I realized I found it in all sorts of other situations – in science fiction with pat or by-rote worldbuilding. In mysteries where the murderer is almost dancing in front of the main character proclaiming his guilt on page two, and yet the murder is not solved.
These can happen through incompetence, of course. But it has a different feel when it’s done on purpose. It’s even throughout, like the same amount – of nearly zero – effort was made. And it grates on the reader’s nerves.
At the risk of sounding sappy the most important thing, perhaps, for your voice, other than confidence in yourself and the story, is authenticity. Do your best to portrait truth, even in your fiction. This is not the same as portraying day to day life, because we already have that and don’t need to read it. It’s more portraying what you view as the truth of the times or the people, and making people and times as real as possible within the ordered confines of fiction.
If you do so, if you play fair with your readers, adult to adult, they’ll respond honestly.
If you use stereotypes and stereotypical situations, and it’s obvious you feel superior to your material, your reader will know too. And after a while it will start to grate.
Believe it or not, even from behind the pages of a book, readers can tell when you smirk.